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Court strikes down Voting Act’s preclearance formula

Invalidating a key Civil Rights era statutory provision designed to stop efforts to impede blacks from voting in the nation’s southern states, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the preclearance coverage formula under the Voting Rights Act, ruling that it violates states’ sovereignty rights.

While the Act’s general prohibitions of discrimination based on race or color remain intact, the 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder invalidates § 4 of the statute, which establishes a formula to determine what voting districts are subject to an additional preclearance requirement that bars any change in voting procedures without preapproval by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The decision strikes only the preclearance coverage formula, which was originally designed to expire after five years, not the preclearance requirement itself established by § 5 of the Act. The ruling prevents Congress from continuing to reauthorize the preclearance requirement without devising a new formula based on the current climate.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noted the “exceptional conditions” that existed when the statute was enacted that justified a departure from the general rule barring federal preapproval of state and local laws. But without a finding based on determination of current conditions, the provision does not continue to pass constitutional muster.

“Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically,” Roberts wrote. Yet “Congress did not use the record it compiled to shape a coverage formula grounded in current conditions. It instead reenacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day.”

In a dissent that she announced from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the decision of whether preclearance requirements are necessary rests with Congress, not the court. Congress had sufficient factual basis to reauthorize, Ginsburg said, as the record for the 2006 reauthorization made “abundantly clear.” Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia M. Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Ginsburg’s dissent.

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia, said in a prepared statement that the Shelby County decision “blocked the single most effective instrument of fairness in place since 1965.”

According to the ACLU, the preclearance process blocked 15 discriminatory voting laws in Virginia between 1982 and 2006, including a $45 fee one party proposed to impose on convention delegates – a practice overturned as a poll tax.

Gastañaga said the ACLU would urge Congress to rewrite the preclearance formula. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act continues to bar voting policies and practices that are discriminatory, she said.

-Kimberly Atkins, with additional reporting by Deborah Elkins

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